As in most years, there is talk of drought in the UK. The country as a whole receives, each year, enough rainwater to meet all our needs – but it doesn’t always fall where it is needed most. Nothing comes free; purifying and distributing water costs money and energy – and adds to carbon emissions. So we are right to economise in the use of water, and there is a definite need to extend water-metering to every household. But we also need to make better use of the water nature provides. Our forefathers understood this, and built dams and pipelines. Now, in an age when we are profligate in our use of water – and show little sign of being less attached to our green lawns and golf courses – we are doing, comparatively, much less.
The need to improve UK infrastructure of all kinds has been recognised by government, but has not yet entered the national psyche. Joining-up Britain – high speed rail, water distribution, broadband connectivity, urban cycleways and local public transport (to get us out of our cars) and better roads where we have little choice but to use cars – are all needed if the UK as a whole is to be competitive. I’m increasingly convinced that public expenditure on construction must be biased towards infrastructure, that expenditure on new buildings must deliver better value for money, and that buildings must be seen as long-term assets, capable of multiple uses over their lives. Equally I don’t feel that (perfectly proper) concerns about the value delivered by some PFI projects should blind us to the real opportunities to fund infrastructure projects through the market.
The UK is not yet a well joined-up country. The success of the financial services sector (which is by no means dead) was based upon London and a small number of other cities, including Leeds. If it is to meet social and economic needs, our industrial recovery needs a much broader geographic base – and that demands state-of-the-art infrastructure of every kind. So far, I haven’t seen a national business case for this, nor a powerful lobby.